Pakistan v England, 2nd Test, Abu Dhabi January 24, 2012

Questions to answer for England

England insist they have suffered one bad result but need to find a response in the second Test to silence the critics who think there's plenty to answer for the world's No. 1 Test team

Aberration or new era? False dawn or coronation? Undercooked or in decline? The answer to these questions and many more will be revealed over the next few days as Pakistan and England renew rivalries in Abu Dhabi.

We should resist reading too much into one result. But should Pakistan win again, then it will be fair to start drawing conclusions about their revival. And England's enduring problems in Asia.

A glance at the record books suggests that winning at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium will prove tough. The two previous Tests here have both ended in draws and have produced three double centuries. It is interesting to note that, in both instances, Pakistan's captain, Misbah-ul-Haq, won the toss and inserted the opposition. On the first occasion, South Africa amassed 584 but not before they had been 33 for three, while on the second occasion, Sri Lanka were dismissed for 197. If there is any life to be exploited in the pitch, it might well be in the first few hours.

Much of England's success in recent years has come against sides that have imploded: India, Australia and Pakistan come to mind. All were in transition and all capitulated under pressure. Pakistan are unlikely to do that.

Pakistan play, on the whole, solid, sensible cricket. In the first Test, they were successful through bowling straight, playing straight and displaying discipline and patience in all departments. They applied the pressure and England buckled.

That should not be interpreted as faint praise. Success in cricket, as in all facets of life, is so often reliant more on perspiration than inspiration. Genius is wonderful but hard work often prevails. In the likes of Misbah-ul-Haq, Mohammad Hafeez, Taufeeq Umar, Umar Gul and the underrated Abdur Rehman, Pakistan have mature cricketers who know what it takes to prosper at this level. Besides, in Saeed Ajmal and Younis Khan, Pakistan are blessed with a sprinkling of genius.

Ajmal was especially impressive in Dubai. His use of the crease, his variations in pace and his subtle turn in each direction, presented huge problems for England. How they combat him in Abu Dhabi may well prove crucial.

Talk of Pakistan becoming the best team in the world is premature. They have started well but there is a huge distance to travel before that can be said. They have won series against Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka to date. Beating England will provide clearer evidence of progress.

It is worth remembering that Ian Bell averaged over 100 in 2011, Kevin Pietersen scored 175 two Tests ago and Eoin Morgan scored a century in the Test before that.

Whatever happens over the next few weeks, the need for Pakistan to recruit another new coach has surely receded. As interim, Mohsin Khan has done everything that has been asked of him and more. While he is not the most hands-on of coaches, he has helped create a calm environment in which the players can shine. Further talk of Dav Whatmore appears superfluous.

But make no mistake, this is Misbah's team. He is the one dictating the tactics, setting the tone and ensuring the happy sense of calm that currently pervades the squad. He assumed the captaincy with Pakistan cricket at a crossroads and has, to date, played the hand that fate dealt him masterfully. Coming from behind to beat his Pakistan team in a three-Test series will be desperately tough.

If any team can do it, England can. It is almost four years since they have lost two Tests in a row - against South Africa in 2008 - and, while only ten teams in history have recovered from one-nil down to win a three-Test series, England did so as recently as 2008. At least six, and possibly seven, of the team that played the last Test in that series in New Zealand will represent England in this game. The last four times that England have lost a Test, they have bounced back with a win in their next. But none of those results were against one of the major teams on Asian pitches.

England have one injury concern. Chris Tremlett has reported stiffness in his back and side, and took no part in training on Tuesday. He is most unlikely to play. As a consequence Steven Finn, a proven wicket-taker but liable to leak runs, and Graeme Onions, a wicket-to-wicket bowler who could be considered an ideal horse for this course, will be considered. The spin of Monty Panesar is another option but there is little precedent for England fielding two spinners in a four-man attack. Indeed, the last time they did so was in December 2003, when they drew with Sri Lanka in Kandy.

And there's the rub. England have a tough balancing act to perform. Excluding Bangladesh, they have won just one Test in Asia since March 2001. In that game, against India in Mumbai in 2006, they fielded two spinners.

That might suggest the inclusion of Panesar. But the problem for England is that in that game, they also played three fast bowlers. The presence of Andrew Flintoff as an allrounder allowed them that luxury but, in the absence of Tim Bresnan who might have batted at seven and displaced Eoin Morgan, it is hard to see a way that two spinners can be accommodated. Perhaps, one day, Ben Stokes or Chris Woakes will solve that problem. For now, the loss of Bresnan is enormous. It is highly unlikely that England, after the batting failure of Dubai, will respond by dropping a batsman to fit in another bowler. But it might well be their best method of winning.

That issue is compounded by the concerns about their top-order batting. The openers, with nine of their last 11 partnerships failing to pass 25, are one issue. The lack of form shown by Kevin Pietersen, Morgan and Ian Bell is another. But it is worth remembering that Bell averaged over 100 in 2011, Pietersen scored 175 two Tests ago and Eoin Morgan scored a century in the Test before that. They have had, at present, one bad game. Nothing more.

It is Andrew Strauss' form that is of greatest concern. With just one century in 26 Tests and an average of 23 from the start of the Sri Lanka series, his form cannot be dismissed quite so readily. At the pre-match media conference, Strauss admitted his lack of runs in Dubai was "disappointing" before conceding he was "conscious that it's important as a captain to lead from the front with regards to scoring runs". England will provide every opportunity for Strauss to rediscover his form and there is no immediate danger of a change of personnel. But it could become an issue.

One bad result, as England keep telling us, does not make them a poor side. But two bad results? That is a different matter.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Satish on January 25, 2012, 5:10 GMT

    Just a prediction.. Draw at the best for England provided Pakistan lose their batting form and collapse.. On this pitch, England cant say "We played spin better than last test" as the track wont offer any.. Lets watch.. This match provides more interest than the dead one going there down under..

  • Andrew on January 25, 2012, 5:06 GMT

    So far, the only "trend" that can be gathered from England in the Middle East is that (inc tour games), the batting does not look as imposing as it has in recent times. Sometimes this can be the fact that it is rare to have 4 or 5 batsmen in peak form at the same time, it could be a blip, or it could be a pre-curser to what is in store for England in the Middle East/Asia. My feeling is that it is a little of all of the above. They've had freak performances from cricketers (Bell in particular), so I would say some batsmen are due a lean patch, the 1st test was a bit of a statistical outlier, & finally, England are not as adept at playing in Asia. The last point is in theory the easiest to remedy, but when up against a team like Pakistan that when they blow hot they sizzle, it will be tough to turn around. I think Pakistan have at least ONE collapse in them in this series, but I suspect England do too! Leaning towards a draw here, & England going down fighting in the 3rd, Pakis 2 nil!!!

  • Vijay on January 25, 2012, 5:01 GMT

    The Curse of the #1 Ranked Side. India couldn't and can't win outside the sub-continental conditions(India, SL, Bangladesh and Pak). England can't win outside England, SA, Australia. The only side to deservedly hold the rank was Australia. And at the current rate, they'll be back to reclaim the #1 in all 3 formats.

  • Cricket on January 25, 2012, 4:51 GMT

    England will not play two spinners, it is just not their way of playing cricket. They have their own formula. Though the conditions and pitch conditions also need to be respected. Interesting to see what strauss does.

  • Rahul on January 25, 2012, 4:27 GMT

    I guess there is general ignorance regarding the skills and ability of Pakistan bowling attack among the foreign media and fans a like. How many daemons does the Dubai pitch possess to restrict the batting line up consisting of Cook, KP and Trott to less then 200 on the first day pitch. The wicket was batting beauty added by the beautiful weather with tempratures howering around 18 degrees. Those were perfect batting conditions but this pakistan attack is freakish. Pak bowlers have taken pitch out of contention with clever usage of variations in spin, speed, length and angle with some mind games thrown in backed by a clam and very clever captain in the field. England had no business loosing to this pakisan side whoes only proven test batsmen is Younis khan under 3 days. The problem for England in not in the pitch or conditions or their team is just that they have been pitted against a world class bowling attack and they need to do all the running to counter them.i

  • A on January 25, 2012, 3:17 GMT

    With only a few hours left for kickoff, I am very excited. Will England take the risk and play Monty? I think it will help them. He is a quality bowler. Pakistan also have some worries, despite playing well in the first game. Asad Shafiq needs more time at the crease, but I personally feel Umar Akmal should be groomed at number 6, with a potential move up to 4 or 5 in a few years. He is technically a very solid batsman and we could use that potential momentum late in the order. Also, Cheema is very good but left arm fast is what we need up front. It will hassle the English top order. I also feel that Azher Ali needs to mature more, he is a good batsman but he needs more practice. An exciting game I hope is on the cards!

  • Abdullah on January 25, 2012, 3:04 GMT

    in the past 2 years England has been feeding on the misfortune or transition phases of other sides. The other factor responsible for their success was that they have been continuesly playing in their HOME CONDITIONS, while the opposition has been comming and going one after the other.Now they start travelling.. specially the subcontinent tours are going to be tough for England.

  • Asaduzzaman on January 25, 2012, 1:50 GMT

    No more discussion about No. 1.... In recent history of cricket, West Indies was no. 1 during 70s & 80s, and Australia was no. 1 from 1999 to 2007..... No other team should not dare to claim that they are no. 1. This series, Pakistan is winning by 2-0 margin against this funny 'No. 1' team

  • Matthew on January 25, 2012, 0:17 GMT

    IF England win they will have layed the ghosts of the first test to rest and can look forward again. However, if they lose again, the questions over their performances in Asia will be well and truly justified.

  • MALIK on January 24, 2012, 23:48 GMT

    ALL ENGLAND NEED TO DO IS TO SEE THE TRACK RECORDS OF MURALI,SAQLAIN,BHAJI(HARBAJAN),KUMBLE AND THEY WILL FIND THE ANSWER 'why 2 spinners ON ASIAN WICKETS' a bowler can always contribute scoring some valuable runs as well, bt never heard that a pure batsman contributed in taking wickets....monty panesar,swan,stuart broad and james anderson should play while jonathan trot and kevin peterson can always give a break to regular per pakistan is concerned umar amin should score some runs as technically for me he is not ideal at 3....if they play monty panesar he can make ball talk by bowling in bowlers follow through foot marks and can get extra bounce....

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